Riyadh and Karachi: The rise of a new mega city
Throughout history, the rise of nations has followed the rise of their mega cities. These mega cities project cultural, economic, and political power attracting best in class talent, reinforcing the economic and political strength of these nations. It is impossible to imagine the power of the Abbasids without the grandeur of Baghdad or the British Empire without the dominance of London.
Cities represent organization, community and the imagination of humanity, as well as our ability to collaborate on ideas to build great inventions, monuments and nations. Vienna, the Austro-Hungarian capital, was a cosmopolitan city with inhabitants like Sigmund Freud, Joseph Schumpeter and Leon Trotsky – thus the ideas in economics, marketing and psychology that shaped the 20th century were born in a single city.
The importance of cities has increased over time. South Korean development known as the “Miracle on Han River” is the story of the rise of Seoul, which now accounts for half the South Korean GDP. China’s meteoric rise is attributed to growth of new metropolizes like Shenzhen, which was a sleepy fishing village in the 1980s, and is now home to nineteen unicorns like Huawei and Tencent. The Brookings Global Metro Monitor reinforces that cities are anchors of national economic development — “300 largest metro areas accounted for 67 percent of global GDP growth between 2014 and 2016”.
Fast forward now to modern day Riyadh. This Super City, poised to become a Mega City, presents fantastic opportunities as the intellectual, cultural and entrepreneurial capital of Asia, if not the world.
- Malik Ahmad Jalal
On a visit to Riyadh recently, I witnessed the city’s momentum. It is fast emerging as a mega city poised to project the Kingdom’s power beyond the Middle East and onto a global stage. Under Vision 2030 of Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Riyadh is transforming to vastly expand the physical, intellectual and spiritual horizons of its citizens, with a holistic national transformation plan, from dealing with quality of life and character enrichment, to the mundane but highly operational performance measurement.
The US $23 billion King Salman Park project is transforming the ecology, cultural, art and sports landscape of Riyadh– a space set to create the soul of a mega city. King Salman Airport with a capacity of 185 million passengers and Riyadh Air will bring the world to Riyadh and Riyadh to the world, projecting culture and soft power.
In the Middle Ages, three super cities projected power of the Islamic world. It was Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo in the early Middle Ages and later on Constantinople, Samarkand and Tehran. To become a global city that rivals London or New York and not just a regional hub, Riyadh needs to partner with other cities. Dubai and Istanbul are competitors. Cairo makes for a valuable partner city as it offers scale of markets, though with the same language and region has less complementarity. Lagos and Jakarta are other possibilities, as both are tech cities of large market size in different regions. But compared to these, a risky yet imaginative and inspiring choice is Karachi. Here’s why.
Karachi offers a scale of a 20 million market. It has a four-times wage differential with Riyadh, making re-outsourcing more economically viable than other cities. Karachi is a tech city with strong Silicon Valley links – unicorns like Careem and Affinity’s technology was built in Karachi – and so it can be a coding, outsourcing partner city of Riyadh.
Pakistan has the second and third largest diaspora populations in the UK and US respectively. Some 40 percent of the diaspora are from Karachi, many are educated engineers and doctors. Riyadh can become the bridge between their homes in the West and the East, but also a conduit of their western knowledge, know-how and expertise.
Karachi reinforces the pivot to Asia. Karachi is the lynchpin in access to Eastern China through the energy and industrial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is an anchor city in a different region with a different language and the economic, investment and political linkage with Karachi will secure the Kingdom’s eastern flanks by drawing power away from other port cities in the Straits of Hormuz.
There was a time which history terms as the Golden Era of the Islamic World when books were written in Cairo, published in Damascus, and read in the libraries of Baghdad. The best minds in three different cities synergized to create lasting intellectual, cultural capital for humanity. Fast forward now to modern day Riyadh. This Super City, poised to become a Mega City, presents fantastic opportunities as the intellectual, cultural and entrepreneurial capital of Asia, if not the world.
In such uncertain times, the region’s economy can be rejuvenated through a convergence of intellect and street-smart knowledge drawn from across the Islamic world. Riyadh has attracted the talent, ideas and values from across the Gulf, but can it attract it globally to become a mega city that synthesizes the cultural and entrepreneurial achievements of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad of the old, to propel the region to become a great power of the 21st century?
- Malik Ahmad Jalal is a venture builder, a private equity investor and investment banker.